Storm Helps Snowpack, Causes Delays in Mountains

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Another powerful storm provided a boost to an above-average snowpack, but caused more headaches for travelers in the Sierra.

Westbound traffic was backed up for miles Saturday afternoon on the main highways linking Northern California and Nevada, the California Highway Patrol reported.

It was only the latest frustration for motorists heading over mountain passes on Interstate 80 and U.S. 50 during a weeklong string of storms that dumped up to 6 feet of snow at Lake Tahoe.

And the problem could be worse on Sunday with the end of the New Year's holiday, authorities warned.

"The traffic is horrible ... It won't end until the holidays are over," CHP Sgt. Steve Carmichael said. "The problem is you have a 1960s road and 2004 traffic."

Many motorists waited until Saturday to head over the passes after an earlier storm shut down the highways on New Year's Day and continued to clog traffic Friday, he said.

Chain controls continued to back up traffic Saturday, but the controls were lifted later in the day after blue skies returned.

Chains or snow tires were still required Saturday evening on other mountain routes, including Highway 88 over Carson Pass.

Squaw Valley USA reported its fourth snowiest December in a decade with 15 feet of snow for the month. The resort just north of Tahoe also had 16 inches from the latest storm and 6 feet for the week.

"We've had a few complaints from skiers about the traffic," Squaw spokeswoman Katja Dahl said. "But I hope people have been able to enjoy the ski conditions. These are the best days we've had all year.

The resort reported more than 5,000 skiers and a full parking lot on Saturday. "We've had an excellent crowd," Dahl said.

Water officials rejoiced over the storms. The Sierra snowpack provides water for much of Nevada and California.

Saturday's snowpack water content measured at 172 percent of average for the date in the Tahoe Basin.

The National Weather Service was calling for a chance of snow off and on through the week beginning Tuesday.

A warmer system could bring a mix of rain and snow Tuesday and Wednesday to towns around Tahoe, and cause some localized flooding.

But the storm is not expected to create the conditions that caused the devastating New Year's Flood of 1997, said weather service forecaster Mark Brown.

"It doesn't look like it'll be as much rain as we had in December 1996" before the flood, he said, adding December's snowpack was well below that of December 1996. Extended Web Coverage

What to listen for:

  • Winter Storm Watch: Severe winter conditions, such as heavy snow and / or ice, are possible within the next day or two. Prepare now.

  • Winter Storm Warning: Severe winter conditions have begun or are about to begin in your area. Stay indoors!

  • Blizzard Warning: Snow and strong winds will combine to produce a blinding snow (near zero visibility), deep drifts, and life-threatening wind chill. Seek refuge immediately!

  • Winter Weather Advisory: Winter weather conditions are expected to cause significant inconveniences and may be hazardous. The greatest hazard is often to motorists.

  • Frost/Freeze Warning: Below freezing temperatures are expected and may cause significant damage to plants, crops and trees.

Be prepared before the storm hits, if at home:

  • Primary concerns are the potential loss of heat, power, telephone service, and a shortage of supplies if storm conditions continue for more than a day. Have available:

  • Flashlight and extra batteries.
  • Battery-powered NOAA Weather Radio and portable radio to receive emergency information. These may be your only links to the outside.
  • Extra food and water. High-energy food, such as dried fruit or candy, and food requiring no cooking or refrigeration is best.
  • Extra medicine and baby items.
  • First-aid supplies.
  • Emergency heating source, such as a fireplace, wood stove, space heater, etc.
  • Fire extinguisher and smoke detector.

Be prepared in your car

  • Fully check and winterize your vehicle before the winter storm hits.
  • Blankets and / or sleeping bag.
  • Flashlight with extra batteries.
  • First-aid kit.
  • Knife.
  • High-calorie, non-perishable food.
  • Extra clothing to keep dry.
  • A large empty can and plastic cover with tissues and paper towels for sanitary purposes.
  • A smaller can and water-proof matches to melt snow for drinking water.
  • Shovel.
  • Windshield scraper and brush.
  • Tool kit.
  • Tow rope.
  • Booster cables.
  • Water container.
  • Compass and road maps.
  • Keep your gas tank near full to avoid ice in the tank and fuel lines.
  • Try not to travel alone.
  • Let someone know your timetable and primary and alternate routes.

What to do if caught in a winter storm.


  • Find shelter, try to stay dry.
  • Cover all exposed parts of the body.
  • If no shelter is found, find a way to break the wind. Such as a snow cave or location where the wind is not hitting.
  • Build a fire for heat and to attract attention, if shelter is not around. Place rocks around the fire to absorb and reflect heat.
  • Do NOT eat snow, it will lower your body temperature. Melt it first.

Caught in a car

  • Stay in your car. Disorientation occurs quickly in wind-driven snow and cold.
    Run the motor about ten minutes each hour for heat.
  • Open the window a little for fresh air to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Make sure the exhaust pipe is not blocked.
  • Turn on the dome light at night when running engine.
  • Tie a colored cloth (preferably red) to your antenna or door.
  • Raise the hood indicating trouble after snow stops falling.

Caught at home or in a building.

  • Stay inside. When using ALTERNATIVE HEAT from a fireplace, wood stove, space heater, etc.: Use fire safeguards and properly ventilate.
  • If you have no heat source, close off unneeded rooms, stuff towels or rags in cracks under doors and cover windows at night.
  • Eat and drink. Food provides the body with energy for producing its own heat.
  • Keep the body replenished with fluids to prevent dehydration.
  • Wear layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing.

What Makes a Winter Storm?

  • Cold Air: Below freezing temperatures in the clouds and near the ground are necessary to make snow and/or ice.
  • Moisture: To form clouds and precipitation. Air blowing across a body of water, such as a large lake or the ocean, is an excellent source of moisture.
  • Lift: Something to raise the moist air to form the clouds and cause precipitation. An example of lift is warm air colliding with cold air and being forced to rise over the cold dome. The boundary between the warm and cold air masses is called a front. Another example of lift is air flowing up a mountain side.

Winter storms are sometimes called “Deceptive Killers.”

  • Most winter storm deaths are “indirectly” related to the storm, such as, traffic accidents and hypothermia.
  • 70 percent of snow storm deaths occur in automobiles.

Source: A compilation of Web reports contributed to this report.